Council Chamber. Herroton City.
30th November 2151.
Neither Corporal James nor Trooper Tharpa had been part of the honour guard for the dignitaries who visited Enterprise, and so had formed no opinions about them. Still, to qualify for Pathfinder training in the marines, you had be able to think quickly and make rapid assessments of situations. As such, the two wasted no time in developing a deep dislike of Councillor Vrok. That may seem odd, as during her speech before the collected council, she lavished them with praise, speaking highly of their 'courage' and 'dedication', in the face of their 'trying ordeal'. The praise was somewhat too effusive, prompting James to lean closer to her colleague and whisper that the Denobulan woman was one step away from holding up a placard reading 'Look how caring and considerate I am'. Tharpa didn't reply, but the absence of his ubiquitous smile displayed his feelings well enough to those who knew him.
"...cannot thank our human friends enough for their assistance in this matter." Vrok was saying. She strode the stretch of chamber along the centre of the room, making sure she could command the attention of the various councillors in the elevated seating either side of her. At one end of the room lay the double doors that formed the main entrance. Positioned above them was a large display screen, which had earlier displayed the footage from the marines' helmet cameras. Now it was blank, lifeless. One of the city's periodic power failures had struck, throwing the chamber into darkness. At this late hour there was no illumination from outside, even with the large windows. Within seconds of the blackout, technicians had rushed in, setting up battery powered lights, a sensible precaution given the frequency of such events.
At the other end of the chamber stood several podiums. Governor Trex occupied the highest of these by right of his position. As the matter under discussion was one relating to the colony's security, Commissioner Tovan currently took the place to his right. A set of bench seating to his side was occupied by several members of his staff, ready to give any information he might require. James and Tharpa currently sat to Trex's left, where they had given their testimony, and answered the councils questions. Several others from the Enterprise sat ready to their side.
"But now," Vrok continued, "we must come to a decision as to what shall be done about this matter. Two people are missing, their fate uncertain, though I fear the worst. These strange and frightening events have occurred at the archaeological site, not far from our homes. Can any of us be certain we are safe here? There are children
in our beloved city. Do we dare risk their innocent lives through inaction? I say no! We must do what must be done to defend our city, our lives and our future!"
There were loud shouts of support from several councillors.
"It is all very well to speak of action, Councillor Vrok." Trex said. "But may I enquire...ah." The main lights had flickered back into life as power returned. "Ah, good. Yes. Now, may I enquire as to what action you propose? No, leave those where they are, please, we may need them again." The latter was to a technician who had rushed in to remove the emergency lights.
Vrok lifted her head. "In the face of the mahwee menace we must..."
"One moment." Trex held up a hand. "The mahwee menace? I don't think we've established the identity of the creature in the tunnels yet."
Vrok made an impatient gesture. "I disagree. We've all seen the footage from the helmet cameras. Does it not look like a mahwee?" Several councillors agreed vigorously.
"Captain Archer. Forgive the implied, and unintended, implication of technical deficiency here, but just how reliable is the recording equipment?" Trex asked.
Archer stood, and moved closer to the podiums so the rest of the council could see him. "Highly reliable Governor. However, I've been talking to Major Reed and his people. They agree that the footage is...inconclusive."
"We have a shadow, and a briefly glimpsed shape at extreme range for the wrist computers sensor probe. There's just not enough data to identify the creatures from the recordings." He returned to his chair.
"The footage is immaterial." Vrok said, as if the footage had not been the main point of her argument seconds before. "We have two eyewitnesses right here. Now, Corporal James, my dear, why don't you tell us all what you really saw?"
saw?" James asked, raising an eyebrow and mentally running through her unarmed combat training. War with the Denobulans was considered unlikely, but with data drawn from the cross culture medical exchange the military had come up with a few techniques to incapacitate or even kill if need be. Not that she planned to do anything, but thinking about it was oddly relaxing. Method three, rapid strike to solar plexus. Performed correctly can debilitate for three to five seconds, allowing follow up strikes. Method four, approach from behind, apply variant of standard sleeper hold with more pressure on front of neck than sides, as major blood vessels are located there in Denobulans. Method five, elbow strike to temple...
Perhaps it was an unfamiliarity with human body language, but Vrok did not pick up on James' mood. "Yes, my child. Do not allow yourself to be unduly influenced by the words of others---" she glanced significantly at Trex--- "just think carefully. These terrifying creatures you faced so bravely in the tunnels, they were mahwee, weren't they? There was one clambering over the rooftops when you arrived here earlier. I saw you watching it from that window there, so you do know what they look like. Just tell us the truth, and we can all put this terrible ordeal behind us."
James took a deep breath. "Well, if you put it that way...now I think about it...I can honestly say that the thing I got a fleeting glimpse of at the extreme range of my night vision gear does indeed bear a passing resemblance to the other thing that I saw briefly at a distance in fading light. In fact, if pressed on the matter, I'd go so far as to say they really were fairly similar. Well, similar-ish."
A shadow fell across Vrok's face. She forced a smile. "Please, my dear, this matter is important. You are amongst friends here and it is vital we know the truth. Has someone been putting pressure on you? Trying to confuse matters to hide the mahwee's culpability?"
James and Tharpa exchanged glances. "What? No! Why would anyone do that?"
"Oh I do not know, my dear, I simply do not know. But seeing as all the evidence points to mahwee involvement, your failure to confirm it is so perplexing. Clearly, someone is trying to cover something up, and you are their unwitting pawn."
"Well that's clearly
not the case!" James snapped. From the corner of her eye she saw the Captain half stand. To the other side, Trex raised his ceremonial gavel. She turned to him quickly, holding up her hands in a placatory gesture. "Forgive me, Governor. My apologies to the council, and to Councillor Vrok, for my outburst."
Vrok smiled magnanimously. "You are forgiven. These are after all trying
times, and you have been under a lot of stress. Small wonder that you are so...fragile."
"You are very considerate." James replied, imagining how satisfying it would be to get just one good solid punch in. Just one. "However, there is no
proof that it's a mahwee in the tunnels. If there was, you wouldn't need our testimony. And you've still not explained why anyone would try to cover it up."
"Ah, that, I cannot imagine." Vrok said, turning away and brushing the sleeve of robes.
One of the seated councillors leapt to his feet. "Permission to address the council."
"Granted." Trex said.
The councillor cleared his throat. "Honoured colleagues, please understand I mean no ill will by this, but I believe it possible---possible
---that Governor Trex's affinity for these creatures may have impaired his judgement." There were rumblings from around the chamber, including some voices raised in agreement.
Trex banged the gavel. "Settle down please. Settle down! Now, Councillor Chren, could you kindly explain your statement?"
Chren grasped his lapels. "From the very beginnings of this city, the presence of these beasts amongst us has been a matter of great controversy. They are wild, untamed animals, not domesticated pets. They have stolen materials needed for our construction projects, helped themselves to our food supplies, frightened our young...I'm sure I do not need to remind you of the time one of them got into the school. Their filth befouls our fair city and is a potential health risk.
"There are many amongst us who consider them at best a liability to our way of life, at worst an actual risk. The only reasons they have been tolerated for this long has been their apparently harmless nature, and, forgive me for saying this Governor, your own fondness for them. You regularly welcome them to your own office. Or do you deny that?"
"I deny nothing of the sort. As you say, the mahwee are apparently harmless and my own experiences bear that out. I have found them to be peaceful, gentle beings, and very pleasant to be around."
"You tell that to those poor children who were terrified that day." Chen countered.
"A mahwee got into the building through a window that had been left open and fell asleep in a cupboard. When the cupboard was opened the next day the startled creature tried to flee. Yes, some of the pupils got a nasty scare, but no harm was done. And some children frighten easily. As I recall one little girl burst into tears when you presented her with an award last year. I hardly think that qualifies you to be a 'menace'."
There was laughter in the chamber. Chren looked flummoxed, and cast around in confusion. Was it just James' imagination, or did he look for support to Vrok? And did she point subtly downwards just before he took his seat?
"Loath as I am to give credence to such ideas," Vrok said, "I must reluctantly conclude that Councillor Chren raises a valid point. Our esteemed Governor is known to have a strong liking for the creatures. I do not believe for a moment that he would deliberately
allow his feelings to override his better judgement, but is it not...possible...that his emotional attachment has compromised his views, has blinded him to the facts?"
Once more voices were raised in her support. "And is it not also possible," she continued, "that, in his desire to protect these creatures, he has influenced the only two witnesses so they give unreliable testimony? He could have----"
"That's a damn lie!" James snarled, leaping to her feet.
Vrok flinched, stepping back, but quickly recovered. "It's a matter of public record that the two of you, along with several of your cohorts, visited the Governors office prior to this meeting. What did you discuss?" She patted a loose hair down in to place.
Before James could respond another Councillor had stood. "I request permission to address the council." Before Trex could respond she went on "I want it put on record that the human witness is obstructive, and their testimony unreliable. This Corporal James has been evasive, flippant, facetious and now openly hostile. I demand she be escorted from the chamber forthwith."
"I don't think that will be necessary." Trex said. "But may I remind the Corporal that this is a Council Chamber and such outbursts will not be tolerated. Now unless anyone else has questions for them...no? In that case we formally thank Corporal James and Trooper Tharpa for their testimony. You may return to your seats. Thank you."
As she stood James leant closer to Trex. "Sorry sir.", a phrase she repeated to Archer and Reed when taking her place on the bench seating.
"You should be sorry." Reed glowered. "I had a bet with Sandstrom that you'd lose it completely and lamp that woman. Twenty creds you've cost me."
Archer put a hand on her shoulder. "Don't worry about it Autumn, Vrok's got a stacked deck, you were never going to win."
"What do you mean sir?"
"Hadn't you noticed? It's always the same people offering support whenever she makes a point. This chamber's packed with her cronies."
"Damn it." she spat. "I'll just bet that those two who stood up were in her pocket too."
Archer said nothing, but brushed his sleeve then patted his hair down.
"Secret signals." she realized. "Telling her supporters what to do."
"Right. If she raised the possibility of Trex being emotionally involved, or tried to have you regarded as obstructive, it'd be obvious she was working on her own. But if others in the council raise those points, then she is one voice amongst many. That may sway the undecided counsellors who would be suspicious otherwise. You'll note that it was only after you proved unsupportive that she tried to have your testimony declared unreliable."
She rubbed her forehead. "I hate politics. Give me a gun and a target, any day. So what has she got against the mahwee anyway?"
"I'd guess nothing. As Chren said they've been a controversial issue for many years. If Vrok can make it look like Trex was on the wrong side of the argument through poor judgement that'll do a lot to discredit him. She's after his job, plain and simple."
"Never mind the gun and the target. Just give me twenty seconds and her." James muttered darkly. She was aware of the Captain shaking his head reproachfully, but he didn't seem to really mean it.
"...lack of any concrete evidence!" Trex was saying. "We simply have no proof of mahwee involvement."
"Then what else could it be?" Vrok demanded. She turned to the chamber and spread her arms wide. "What else could it be? We can argue the quality of the recordings till the stars burn cold, but one thing we all agree on, that creature is bipedal! Two arms, two legs! What is there on this planet shaped like that? Three things, and three things only. Denobulans. Humans. And mahwee. There is nothing else it can be! Nothing! So let us stop hiding from the truth and face the facts. It has to be a mahwee as there is nothing else it can be!"
Now she knew what to listen for, James could recognize the same voices as before calling out their support. To her dismay they were joined by others, many others.
Archer sat bolt upright, his hand going to the pocket where he kept his communicator. He stood as unobtrusively as possible and made his way to a secluded corner before answering it.
Trex was leant forward, elbows on the edge of the podium, rubbing his eyes with the heels of his hands. "Very well. We must reluctantly conclude the high probability of mahwee involvement. What do you propose we do about it?"
Vrok grinned triumphantly. "I suggest we establish an emergency committee to look into the matter and to come up with feasible solutions. We need to act quickly to---"
She was interrupted by Trex. "If speed is of the essence Councillor then surely Emergency Protocol Fourteen would be appropriate?"
"Emergency Protocol Fourteen?" she echoed, bewildered.
"Oh yes, that should do the trick. It is up to date, isn't it Tovan?"
The Commissioner stood. "Glad you asked that. It wasn't due for review for another year or so, but when the problems first started I had all the Emergency Protocols brought up to date."
"Ah, excellent work, old friend, excellent work. So there you are Councillor. Is that suitable?"
James sat up, watching intently. Vrok was looking wildly round the chamber. You don't know what it is!
James realized. You're supposed to know and you don't! And you daren't admit ignorance in front of everyone. You're hoping that...oh.
Much to James' disappointment someone else had figured out Vrok's dilemma, and that person was Chren. "You're pardon, Governor, but for the benefit of those not in the Inner Council, what is this protocol of which you speak?"
Vrok's shoulders slumped in relief.
Trex poured himself a glass of water. "When we established the colony, a number of precautionary measures were drawn up in case of emergency. Protocol Fourteen...one moment please." Captain Archer had approached the podium. He whispered something to Trex and handed him a pad. The Governor read it, his face unreadable. "Thank you Captain. Now, as I was saying, Protocol Fourteen covers the possibility of a risk from the mahwee. I should stress that it can only be employed if the Council agree that the risk is major, and immediate. Tovan."
Tovan cleared his throat. "Protocol Fourteen outlines two possible courses of action. One is a forced relocation of the mahwee from our city, plus steps to ensure they do not return. The other is, regretfully, a more lethal response. Several methods are proposed for each choice, balanced by probability of success, speed of execution and total expenditure. Once the Protocol is under way, it only needs a few decisions as to how to implement. Very straight forward."
"I must stress," Trex said, "that the Emergency Protocols are only to be employed when there is a significant risk and there simply isn't the time to develop a more specific, precise plan. I do not believe that is the case here. We have time. Let us consider the matter further."
"I rather think time is of the essence." Vrok said. "Lives are at stake. A decision needs to be made now, right now."
Trex paused. "Perhaps we should vote on that. Should we enact Protocol Fourteen, or should we form a committee to look into it further."
Vrok looked round the chamber, gauging the mood of those present. "Oh yes." she said, satisfied. "Let's all vote on it."
Trex stood, pinching the bridge of his nose wearily. "Very well. A vote, to determine our response to the mahwee threat. Form a committee to investigate further, or enact Protocol Fourteen. The usual voting rules apply, and in the event of...oh, excuse me, I almost forgot." He held up a pad. "Captain Archer gave me this a moment ago. Whilst we were talking Doctor Soong and Professor Partridge have been analysing the blood samples found at the site. They conclude that it is not a mahwee. An entirely unknown species, apparently. Hmm, how about that. So, how do you vote?"
There was a moment of absolute silence. Then the chamber erupted into anarchy.